Squinting at the baggage reclaim board… belt number four. My feet moved but my brain was following about a minute behind. Eugh I felt foggy.
Have you ever travelled long haul?
The plane journey I blimin love, honestly, unlimited films, booze delivered to my seat, just me in my noise cancelling zone. Yes, the bathrooms can be wet and well used and these days the meals seem to be a permanent let down but once i’ve settled into my aisle seat in a trusty and very comfortable travelling outfit (sports bra and leggings essential, plus hoody, cozy socks and my own blankets) I’m well away!
It’s the arrival that’s the issue, when the tiredness cloud descends and you suddenly have to follow immigration and baggage instructions.
There’s also the added stress when you touch down into a world where your dad has pancreatic cancer.
My mind’s racing with questions, last time I landed he looked like this, what will he look like now? Last time he managed a walk in the garden, can he still get out of his chair now?
Living abroad when your dad’s dying is hideous. Just utterly ridiculous.
There’s many reasons why but one that stands out in particular is that no amount of WhatsApp video calls or shared photos really show you what someone looks like. Plus, dad did his best to hide the impact that cancer had on his life from me because I was so far away. (Although unbeknown to dad me, mum and my brother had a secret WhatsApp group where we discussed the ins and outs of his daily life with pancreatic cancer and gave essential support to mum as she became dad’s caregiver. I set the group up. I decided I needed and wanted to know absolutely everything. I never let on to dad because I know he felt happier thinking I was living life pleasantly outside the cancer bubble).
When someone’s dying from pancreatic cancer (I’ll just talk about the cancer dad had because that’s what I know) your appearance can change a lot because this particular cancer affects your weight and it can also cause jaundice (when your skin yellows). So, every single trip home (and I’ve taken a lot in the last eight months) dad definitely looked different.
He was first diagnosed with a pancreatic tumour in July 2018 (although he had been misdiagnosed in the months leading up to this with diabetes and then pancreatitis).
When I landed into Manchester Airport for a European summer holiday that July, I was clueless. I’d planned to climb Snowdon with dad that summer and he went along with it not wanting to tell me that it would never happen. He was severely under weight (he looked like a long distance runner and not in a good way), in constant pain in his abdomen and back, in addition unbelievably weak and very fatigued, just walking up a couple of stairs was effort.
Anyway on the 21st July 2018 I landed into Manchester, tears lining my eyes and this was well before I heard the word cancer. Airports are emotional places, have you not seen Love Actually? Excitement, sadness, bittersweet feelings always hit me in the face when I’m about to walk out of arrivals to see my family for the first time in a while.
This time was different for all the wrong reasons. Walking out, I see mum, dad’s behind her, but wait that’s not dad, no it is dad, is it? Why is he so skinny… wait, he looks upset, why’s he hiding and not really looking at me? Oh fuck. This is bad. He’s dying. My mind honestly went that way, I am a natural worrier (my mind does go to death and murder often. I like reading crime fiction what can I say). So, maybe that’s why death leaped into my mind, but also no six foot, broad, dominant man should suddenly look like Mo Farah. That is most definitely not good.
Oh, I was angry that nobody had warned me. That’s probably incredibly selfish, as they’d been living with dad who’s driving to live with cancer the best they could do. Dad just wanted to be as normal as he could be and pick me up from the airport; he was always a classic taxi-driver parent (who loved it) and always just eager to drive his Mondeo anywhere and everywhere, never the passenger.
My family said they didn’t realise he looked that different (I really didn’t understand this at the time). I just don’t think anyone paused and thought, hang on, if you’ve not seen dad for six months (as I hadn’t), would he look drastically different? Again, with hindsight, why would you pause and think about this? Who has a moment to pause? Living with and caring for with someone with cancer is all encompassing, it takes over and changes your life in every single way, the change is unimaginable until you’re in it (well this was our experience at least), so why would anyone pause to pre-think about this airport experience.
The shock in that moment at Manchester Airport arrivals will never leave me. I’ve never experienced anything like it and I hope to never experience that again.
Ever since that arrival into Manchester, the subsequent arrivals from numerous long haul trips over the last ten months have all been quite traumatic. Every airport goodbye became tinged with the unspoken thoughts of will we see each other again? Time progressed in the worst way and dad could only say goodbye at home, no longer able to drive me to the airport which was something he loved to do (although I’ve never been a huge fan of a parental airport goodbye as I’m left to sob through security by myself).
People may wonder why I continued to work abroad as cancer turned up and took over our lives. Well, in my experience (and I know every experience is different and absolutely individual, so I’m just talking about what me and my family went through), I knew pancreatic cancer is a death sentence, it is, as soon as I heard ‘pancreas’, my mind went to Grey’s Anatomy episodes where anything happening to the pancreas is your life over (i’m a doctor because I watch that show ok).
No, in all seriousness, I knew that life with pancreatic cancer is near impossible (unless you are lucky enough to catch it early, which is incredibly rare, and you can have the tumour removed), you don’t have to do much reading to find that out, just look at the statistics.
Pancreatic Cancer UK – Click the image to view their website and research
However, as a family we lived positively for dad and we took the statistic that some people can live up to five years with this disease. Why would I move back to the UK when my dad was going to live for five more years? Also the consultant we met that summer said so simply and confidently (too confidently) that he could remove the tumour right now but let’s do chemo first to shrink the tumour and then afterwards he’d operate to remove it. (Don’t even get me started on this awful first meeting we had at The Spire Hospital in Manchester, I’ll save that for another blog entitled ‘narcissistic surgeons and their misleading, careless medical advice’).
Also there is NO WAY in a million years dad would have wanted or accepted a move back to the UK because that would have said he was dying and dying soon and that is most definitely not what dad was thinking.
Abroad remained my home and long haul trips became part of that year; a privilege I know, grateful also to be part of a profession with many holidays and also living in a country with a lot of national holidays .
So, back to baggage reclaim and conveyor belt number four. My eyes were already watering because they knew the reason I was home. About two weeks earlier we’d received the news nobody wants but many people get, the treatment was no longer working, the cancer had spread everywhere. There was nothing more they could do for dad.
(I’d wanted to travel straight away but my passport was unluckily stuck with Malaysian Immigration which made the situation even worse, it felt like I was being held hostage while dad’s days quickly ticked over. I even ended up missing a final quick holiday mum and dad took to Tenerife aswell, stupid passport and immigration issues. It’s definitely still too raw to think about.)
My phone buzzed with my brother’s name on the screen, strange I thought, he’s not picking me up my uncle is, why’s he ringing? I knew it was something bad, that’s the only possibility when death’s on your heels.
Dad had been admitted into The Christie with fluid build up. He had ascites, which is a common end of life symptom of cancer. I’d read about it in the very useful Pancreatic Cancer UK end of life booklet (you can view it online or download it at the end of that page), dad had already been treated for it a week earlier when his abdomen was drained. Not a good sign that it had refilled so quickly, the doctor who had drained it said it should have lasted for a couple of weeks before it would need draining again.
From baggage reclaim to a depressing cancer ward in The Christie. That’d never happened before. The longest long haul of my life.
What’s helped with grief today?
– Listening to another excellent and important episode of The Grief Cast (@thegriefcast). If you haven’t listened to this award winning podcast you must, prepare yourself for death it’s inevitable. As I they said so rightly on a different episode, everyone talks about birth but no-one talks about death and death is the only certainty.
– Finding a cool cafe with deliciously strong coffee to write in, have a look at @wanderwithcoffee on Instagram. Today’s venue Phin Coffee in Hoi An, Vietnam.
– Having my feelings validated through posts by The Good Grief Trust (@thegoodgrieftrust) and Life Death What (@lifedeathwhat) on Instagram, it helps me enormously to not feel alone and hear from other people in the club.
– Find out more about pancreatic cancer by visiting www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk, read about the signs and symptoms, learn for yourself and others, donate if you can.
This Is Cancer
Dad had pancreatic cancer in the following three photos but these were good days so you really can’t tell. He did have some good days, maybe just moments really and he definitely forced himself to do more when I was around, another reason these long haul trips meant absolutely everything.